Sunday, 16 June 2013

Why Iain Banks was the perfect author to pen his own death

'It was the day my grandmother exploded. I sat in the crematorium, listening to my Uncle Hamish quietly snoring in harmony to Bach's Mass in B Minor, and I reflected that it always seemed to be death that drew me back to Gallanach.'
Prentice McHoan's openings words of The Crow Road often come back to me in moments of dark humour and it is fitting that their author's passing this week came after a period resigned to his death. 
Banks died this week just three months after announcing he had been diagnosed with gall bladder cancer and just 11 days short of the publication of his final novel, The Quarry. Morbid irony has been something on which Banks has built a career so although his final novel casts a narrator dealing with his dad's terminal cancer, he was 87,000 words into the book before discovering his own illness. "I've really got to stop doing my research too late. This is such a bad idea," Banks said before his death.
The tributes which have poured in via the prolific writers' fan site have been astonishing and it's heartening as a true fan myself to see that other people have had similar reactions. From identifying with his characters to taking inspiration from his musical references, Banks has helped shaped my life and plenty of others' too. 
Like another personal favourite, Haruki Murakami, Banks was not afraid to riff on the same themes novel after novel, giving the readers what they wanted and keeping his focus narrow in his works. Where Murakami writes about jazz, hotels and cats, Banks visits misjudged youth, death and remote Scottish locations. He also identified that this distinct brand differed significantly from his science fiction writing to the point it may alienate (pun intended) many fans, choosing to pen the sci-fi novels under Iain M Banks in a clever move. 
Joseph McFadden as The Crow Road's Prentice McHoan
Perhaps his finest achievement was to create believable characters. From the flaws that lie in bass guitar rock'n'roll star Dan 'Weird' Weir in Espedair Street to journalist Cameron Colley in Complicity, the odd foibles and failings of his distinct main characters, McHoan in particular, are something to revel in. Banks is also able to weave in the darkly humorous and odd too. In arguably his most celebrated novel, The Wasp Factory (Banks' debut aged 30), Banks creates Frank Cauldhame, a 16-year-old with a fascination for killing insects and a bizarre relationship with his family that results in a wicked twist at its conclusion. Banks' ability to sooth and shock in equal measure through twisted and depraved imagery cannot be underestimated. 
He described himself as a 'slacker' but wrote a swathe of mainstream bestsellers which he knocked off a couple of months at a time at a rate of 3,000 words a day.    
However, Banks was not a flawless character. His sci-fi novels were often hugely indulgent while Raw Spirit, a travelogue of Scotland and its whisky distilleries published in 2003, is an example of success allowing artistic freedom to publish vanity projects. Moreover, his brusk manner, often interpreted as arrogance, made Banks a hard person to like in interviews. 
But the calm, quiet manner in which he slipped from this world showed in his actions that Banks was the wry characters his books suggest.
His writing will be missed and his legacy remembered. Let's hope there's no explosions at the funeral. 

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Stoke Newington Literary Festival: Paul Morley on The North

The plush surrounds of Stoke Newington Town Hall appear an unlikely setting in which to discuss a region typified by spit'n'sawdust, steel and graft. But if there's one thing the excellent annual Stoke Newington Literary Festival provides it's variety, from big names including Irvin Welsh, Caitlin Moran and Tariq Ali to comics, poetry and even Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore, the week-long north east London festival has everything and some great venues to host them in. 

Former NME journalist and author Paul Morley, who was born in Surrey but grew up in Stockport, has come to discuss his book, The North. However, as he explains, he usually gets booked as a last minute stand-in to interview authors about their books. As such, with no such interviewer available, he opts to interview himself - selecting content from a Q&A sent by his publishers.

The format itself is a clever idea - he says he once did it before in split screen on BBC2's The Late Review - but struggles in reality. The book itself is a collection of studies on various northern artists and their views of the north but you wouldn't get that from the first half hour in which Morley addresses his concept of 'a north' in which he essentially explains why the book is heavily biased towards the North West, in which he grew up. 
Despite the interview premise, the talk is rambling and structureless, full of great nuggets - the Stockport viaduct features 11 million bricks donchaknow? - but undermined by pulling back to discuss the book's authenticity every time he piques interest. 

Albert Tatlock
He talks about what Albert Tatlock, Ken Barlow's uncle on Coronation Street, the archetypal grumpy northerner, would have made of the book and makes an interesting observation that Shameless' Frank Gallagher may have taken on this TV mantle. But, again, it's about how it may be perceived. One reason, I suspect, is that Morley moved to London following the infamous Sex pistols Free Trade Hall, Manchester gig in 1976 and he wants to ensure that the book has a ring of truth.

However, his frequent excellent writings on northern musical heroes including Ian Curtis, and The Human League give him this authority and he shouldn't be afraid to stick to it. Moreover, I ask him after the talk, why music didn't play more of a role in his readings, given his first hand accounts of people who have defined the north would be fascinating and invaluable. He replies that figures like The Fall's Mark E Smith do feature but in truth there's not the colour or the effervescent anecdotes which would lighten the whole event. 

Morley does make a good point however, when he address the fact that there being a 'North' means that it's defined by a South. He talks about how trains have to stop at Stockport on the way to London and that northerners perhaps over-egg their love of where they're from in the face of stereotypes etched out by southerners who have absolutely no idea where Ravenscar is. 

In essence, this talk is a list of Paul Morley's favourite northerners' from artist L.S Lowry to author Anthony Burgess, waving his glasses and constantly putting them on and whipping them off as he explains his passions. It's certainly interesting however more of his unique musical insight, which many will have attended to hear about, and a stronger view of what being from the north is about would have been more than welcome. 

Sunday, 2 June 2013

Canalival 2013: London at its best and worst

Semi-spontaneous fun is what London does best. We like to know the nearest tube stop, the last bus home and how far it is some Red Stripe and that's about it. 

Canalival 2013
As such, yesterday's Canalival was perfectly imperfect. Planned for months with a clear starting point and DJs scheduled for the event, the follow up to last year's Jubilee celebrations, was cancelled on its eve. What had been a few mates celebrating Queen Liz's honours by getting into Regent's Canal on dinghies became an event which had thousands scheduled to attend on Facebook and major coverage on Time Out. Understandably the police declined to grant the crucial licence which would have allowed the insurance company to back the event.

But the frenzy of excitement the event - a great concept - had brought about was too much to deter potential attendees, myself included. 

As such, I poled down to the canal, skirted a lock and was helped in by our 'Canal Angel' - a woman in a denim jacket with loads of lippie and a megaphone who can only have been one of the organisers. Learning how to stop going in circles with shipmate Claire, stopping to chat to other 'canalies' and comparing our cheap Argos 'Debut' dinghies, the event was lively under the grey clouds and intermittent sunshine of East London.

Highlights included scraping under bridges, trying not to get pulled into bushes, cadging a lift on passing narrow boats, a bloke swimming backwards down the canal using a reverse butterfly stroke off his dinghy and a number of convivial booze swapping moments. The combination of bobbing about, some great music and sights like rafts made of water coolers and the floating island with real sand were fantastic. Not to mention to lone bloke stood upright on his dinghy looking out into the middle distance wearing a poncho. 

But there had to be a downside and the troop of trendy East London types shoving other boats out of the way, pissing on people's property, climbing on moored boats and abandoning dinghies and their packaging felt inevitable. Clearly with the crowd funded monies and community support, the organisers would've been able to clear up after the event swiftly and limit damage to the locale. However, that was no longer available despite the organisers admirably taking responsibility and taking part in the clean up. In the end loads of dinghies got wedged near a lock and someone even let of a flair which, as they always do, made things look a bit nasty. 

There has been a lot of understandable but righteous indignation from locals on social media about the impact and the mess today, but there were also plenty of locals and kids waving to us from the side and enjoying the action too. 

Inspired: A floating island
Clearly the belligerence of hipsters out for themselves and to look good on Instagram knows no bounds, not least if you look at Field Day and its impact on the area around Victoria Park. However, for the rest of us the opportunity to enjoy a nice stretch of the canal and share it with those who live on it year round doesn't seem too much to ask. Too often large groups of young people are vilified for having fun in a city awash with rules. As a Notting Hill resident, one of the best features of living here is the Carnival each August and embracing unexpected fun in the locale is something those living in London, with of its weird quirks and flash mobs need to deal with. 

Social media spurred the clean up today and I don't see any huge reason why the event shouldn't happen again, albeit a difficult one to cope with the huge numbers and demand (several people offered to buy our boat). Long live Canalival and all those who sail upon her.

In video: Canalival 2013

Review: Alternative Press Spring Zine Fair 2013

A quick trip to the Alternative Press Spring Fair, taking place as part of the No Dark Places music and DIY festival, revealed there's plenty of new and established talent on the zine scene.
Its presence in part fills the considerable gap in the zine calendar left by Edd Baldry's Last Hours collective's London Zine Symposium. The fair took place in The Albert hall (no, not that one) a pebble's throw from Queen's Park Station. If the symposium had great passing footfall in Brick Lane and a wave of hipsters, the Albert has a simple charm to it. Despite fantastic local signs, most will have had to hunt the event out and few will have left disappointed. Props to the organisers. 

Among the 30-odd exhibitors there are some real gems including the beautiful design of the Monster Emporium Press, the eclecticism of ShadowPlay stockist Peter Willis' Dead Trees and Dye distro and Holly Casio's odes to Bruce Springsteen and what he represents against her queer, working class background. There are the usual mix of brilliantly bizarre comics, impassioned feminist zines and calls to action - not least The Occupied Times - which continues to publish articulate and in-depth studies in activism with each issue examining a theme in depth. As ever, I often feel the awkwardness of some of the stallholders can seep into the browser and those offering a smile, a complimentary sweet, a daft tale or, in the case of the three lads from the University of East London, boundless enthusiasm, are those who make the day. 

Unfortunately my visit was only fleeting - missing excellent-looking screen printing, stop motion animation and DIY politics workshops - there's nothing like a good zinefest to inspire creativity. It's been a while since the last print edition of ShadowPlay as life continues to get in the way but with each clever idea picked up that long-armed stapler looks more tempting than ever.